'Serious new focus' on adult skills needed

28th May 2010 at 01:00
Governments face `huge issue' to strike balance in modern apprenticeships so all ages benefit

The priority given to training young people through modern apprenticeships will have to change, the British Government's leading adviser in the field said last week.

The warning, from Chris Humphries, chief executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), comes as the Scottish Government prides itself on the fact that it has exceeded its target of 18,500 new apprenticeship starts in the past year, a drive costing pound;16 million and directed mostly at 16 to 19-year-olds.

His call coincides with the unexpected announcement this week by Chancellor George Osborne that pound;500 million of growth items, which have been provided for in his plans to cut public services by pound;6.2 billion, would largely go towards creating 50,000 new apprenticeship places - although it was not immediately clear if this would be in England only.

Mr Humphries (right) said governments faced a "huge issue" to give a "serious new focus" to the skills needs of adults, because the number of young people would start declining rapidly from this year.

"If we are going to create two million extra jobs in the next decade, as has been the case for the past three decades, we need to skill adults to higher levels," he added.

"In each of the last three decades, 700,000 of those two million jobs were filled by young people being added to the workforce. They won't be available to us in the immediate future, and we've got to remember that 80 per cent of those in work in 2020 are in work now."

A recent audit by UKCES, involving 80,000 employers, found that the UK was producing more low-skill people for the labour market than competitor countries. It also found that 40 per cent of those in work were over- qualified for their jobs, in Scotland and across the UK.

"It's not the case that we are producing too many graduates, but we have too many graduates for the skills that aren't required and insufficient graduates for the skills that are," Mr Humphries said.

There would have to be closer alignment between skills provision and what employers need, he added.

Although he emphasised that there would be more demand in the future for a better-trained workforce, with vocational qualifications at levels 3 and 4 (Higher equivalent and above), he also said UKCES estimated that up to 25 per cent of jobs would still require relatively low skills at level 2 (Standard grade Credit equivalent). This would mainly be in the retail, hospitality and care sectors.

Mr Humphries said the Scottish Government was right to concentrate its growth strategy on key sectors - the creative industries, energy (especially renewables), financial and business services, life sciences, tourism and food and drink. Colleges and universities would have to respond by striving to become "world class," as well as responding to what employers and local communities wanted.

The importance of striking the right balance between modern apprenticeships for young people and adults was also emphasised by Damien Yeates, chief executive of Skills Development Scotland. Speaking at the same conference in Edinburgh, run by Holyrood Events, he said the pound;60 million annual investment in apprenticeships by his agency must reflect the needs of the economy.

"Apprenticeships should not be a programme for disaffected young people," he said. "It should be an economic driver and a skills driver."

But Mr Yeates praised the achievements of the scheme in Scotland, particularly the fact that all apprentices had jobs with employers, which is unique in the UK. It also outperformed the rest of the country in having 72 per cent of apprentices completing their training. And only 2 per cent had been made redundant, because most of those who did lose their training place were re-hired by other employers.

He warned of difficult funding times ahead, however, with more money having to be leveraged from the private sector: "We're in a good place in Scotland, but we need to get to a better place."

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has embarked on a project aimed at giving modern apprenticeships "advanced standing" which would allow them to be given a leg-up to degree programmes. The authority is working on the details with the University of the West of Scotland.


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